SEO trends in 2017 reinforce an important message: to be successful, approach SEO as a means to answer your customer’s questions, not as a laser-focused attempt at improving rankings for specific keywords. User experience (UX) shouldn’t suffer at the expense of SEO or vice versa. Two Rivers Marketing promotes a balanced approach SEO, keeping UX top of mind to ensure the customer not only finds a particular website quickly and easily, but enjoys an intuitive and user-friendly interface upon arrival.

Of course, you want to rank for certain keywords — search is the foundation of SEO, and ignoring keyword rankings would be ridiculous. But ranking #1 for specific keywords isn’t enough — especially since you can rank #1 for a keyword with no search volume — and gaming the system is increasingly difficult (and a terrible long-term strategy, to boot). By shifting your focus to providing the answers your customers need, you’ll find greater success in rankings, traffic, and conversions.

Here are SEO trends we’re tracking in 2017 to help you improve your performance:

1. Voice search
“Hey, Siri.” “Ok, Google.” “Alexa, order toilet paper.” Chances are you’ve used a digital assistant to help you find a restaurant near you, discover the answer to a pressing question (Just how many divots are on a golf ball, anyway?), or order household products. But have you thought about the difference between your voice queries and the Google searches you’ve executed in the past? The key difference here is, of course, our voices. We don’t speak to each other in truncated Google searches. Say, for example, that you’re looking to freshen up your living space, but you’re on a budget. Would you walk up to an associate at Target and say, “navy blue area rugs under $50”? Of course you wouldn’t (I hope). But you might if you were executing a Google search from your mobile device or desktop computer.

However, if you’re searching via a mobile digital assistant, you might say “Find me navy blue area rugs under $50 at Target.” You may even add “in Des Moines.”

For an SEO, this marks a significant shift in optimizing content for search. Keyword research is evolving to include more emphasis on long-tail — hyper-targeted and specific keywords, sometimes three to five or more words long — queries, versus short tail. And while the difference in search volume for these types of keywords can be large, long-tail keywords better capture your audience’s intention and lead to higher click-through rates.

Of course, voice search isn’t a new concept. But by 2020, more than 50 percent of search is expected to be voice search, up 49 percent from today’s volume. Brands can’t afford to ignore this trend.

2. Artificial Intelligence (AI)/machine learning
The rise in voice search and digital assistants also generated a need for improved artificial intelligence. We are unique beings, and as such, voice search queries can vary significantly even when the same result is sought. To accommodate the rise in voice search, Google put a larger focus on improving machine learning. Starting with the Hummingbird update in 2013 and continuing with RankBrain in 2015, it’s clear that machine learning is a critical aspect of the algorithm. These updates improve understanding of long-tail queries, and they incorporate Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) to improve search results over time. LSI analyzes thousands of queries to identify the relationship between search terms and the concept the user is trying to find, and it considers synonyms within the content that support the overarching theme of the page. It aims to better understand what a user is searching for, delivering results that may not match the keyword query verbatim but provide access to the desired content or resource.

AI is also in use in many bots, but bot usage is beginning to trend down, particularly those in Facebook Messenger due to a near 70 percent fail rate. Bots are still relatively new, and in some forms they serve great purpose. In 2017, we’ll see brands using AI in new ways, thinking beyond the development of bots and exploring innovations that improve their customers’ experiences.

3. Mobile and speed — AMP and PWA
Seeing “mobile” on an SEO trends list probably elicits a round of eye rolling and choruses of “duh!” Mobile usage has surpassed desktop usage, as predicted, and the proliferation of mobile devices is well-documented. Google has all but told us that a mobile-friendly site is required to rank as highly as possible in search — starting with “Mobilegeddon” in 2015 and a subsequent update in 2016 that further amplified the mobile-friendly signal. And in November 2016, Google announced the move to a mobile first index, or prioritizing mobile-friendly sites over non-mobile in search results. But many brands struggle with the challenges of mobile. You know a mobile-friendly website is a must, but do you know how quickly your pages load for a mobile user? Are your images and videos optimized not only for search, but for mobile consumption? Can your customers reach your website on their mobile device from remote areas?

If you’re implementing AMP or PWA protocols, you’re likely well-optimized for mobile visitors. AMPs, or amplified mobile pages, load almost instantaneously for mobile users. They tend to be lighter on graphics and functionality, which is necessary for speedy page loads. AMPs are popular with publishers, but they can be tricky to implement on an e-commerce site.

PWAs, or progressive web apps, might be the right solution in the e-commerce space. Once a customer visits a page or pages on a PWA, those pages are cached — meaning the user can access the content offline, if necessary.

Exploring these options, as well as analyzing page speed performance, is critical. Page speed impacts user experience — leading to higher bounce rates and less time on site — and Google has indicated it’s a signal used to rank pages. Furthermore, slower page speeds limit the number of pages search engines can crawl on your site. The ideal page load speed is less than three seconds. As you extend beyond that threshold, users begin to abandon your content in increasingly alarming numbers. A full one-third of your audience will abandon the page if it takes more than five seconds to load. True, some factors that impact page load speed — like your audience’s mobile carrier or location — are out of your control, but that simply reinforces the need to optimize the on-page factors you can control.

4. Video/image search
According to Cisco, 80 percent of all internet traffic will be video by 2019. Chances are, you’re not optimizing your video content or images for search, or not as well as you could be. Google has been investing in image recognition technology, and last week we learned why: the search giant is beta testing a technology that will index and catalog items contained in a video and make them searchable. Google will even start telling you the time within the video that the item is visible. Though it’s in beta now, the Cloud Visual Intelligence API may open up to others soon.

Think of the content you’re creating. Are you generating video content at a regular cadence? Is it optimized for search? Where are you hosting your videos? While some video hosting solutions offer hassle-free search optimization of video content, it appears that Google is prioritizing videos hosted on video websites (read: YouTube, Vimeo) over embedded videos on your website when displaying rich snippets in search. Keep in mind that YouTube is the world’s second-largest search engine.

Further cementing the value of image and video search is the fact that product schema now supports product images in search results, creating a more engaging search result and taking up valuable space in SERPs. Not using schemas, otherwise known as structured data? Keep reading to understand why they’re a critical part of your SEO strategy, then visit Schema.org to learn how to start implementing them on your site.

5. Structured data
Structured data tells search engines exactly what a piece of content is about and may help increase CTR because it creates a better experience for the user. You’re able to provide even more information than a typical result provides, creating greater trust in the result. Types of structured data, or rich snippets, include recipes, reviews, contact and location data, movie times, special offers, or images. They provide greater visibility in SERPs, as well as an additional opportunity to optimize webpages for appropriate keywords and improve rankings.

In most cases, implementing structured data requires accessing your website’s code, so start small by identifying popular content on your site and add a rich snippet to test performance.

While it’s not clear if structured data is a ranking factor at this time, John Mueller of Google indicated it likely will be in the future. But of even greater importance is the value it provides the user, further optimizing their search results and leading to higher organic CTRs. Which leads us to the final trend …

6. User experience
You’ll likely continue to hear more about user experience optimization (UEO) in 2017, and truly, most of the trends we’ve talked about impact UEO. Think about your page load times, the ability to provide rich data in SERPs, an improved mobile experience, or content that lends itself to your customers’ natural speaking patterns. These efforts keep the user top of mind, ensuring that the content you create answers their questions.

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SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. A strategy that focuses on the user will yield high-quality content, improved rankings, and increased traffic. Even if you aren’t able to implement all of these trends into your SEO strategy, understanding their importance and monitoring how they impact the industry will prepare you to act when the time is right.

About Kim Ten Clay

Kim loves spending time with her energetic dogs Baxter and Maverick, as well as competing in triathlons and road races. In her role as a digital strategist at Two Rivers Marketing, she combines her passion for the industry and dedication to clients to help them successfully incorporate social, web, and email best practices into their marketing efforts. She holds an MBA in financial resources from Drake University. Love digital marketing AND dogs? Kim would love to hear from you at kimtc@2rm.com.